In response to environmental changes, the photosynthetic bacterium Rubrivivax gelatinosus (Rvx.) can switch from a planktonic lifestyle to a phototrophic biofilm. Like in critical phenomena, the colonization and sedimentation of the cells is abrupt and hard to predict causally, and the underlying biophysics of the mechanisms involved is not known. Herein, we report basic experimental observations and quantitative explanations as keys to understanding microbial turnover of aggregates. (1) The moment of sedimentation can be controlled by the height of the tube of cultivation, by the concentrations of externally added Ficoll (a highly branched polymer) and/or of internally produced polysaccharides (constituents of the biofilm). (2) The observed translational diffusion coefficient of the planktonic bacteria is the sum of diffusion coefficients coming from random Brownian and twitching movements of the bacteria and amounts to 14 (μm)2/s. (3) This value drops hyperbolically with the association number of the cell aggregates and with the concentration of the exopolysaccharides in the biofilm. In the experiments described herein, their effects could be separated. (4) The critical conditions of colonization and sinking of the cells will be achieved if the height of the tube meets the scale height that is proportional to the ratio of the diffusion coefficient and the net mass of the bacterium. The decisive role of the web-like structure of a biofilm, the organization of bacteria from loose cooperativity to solid aggregation, and the possible importance of similar controls in other phototrophic microorganisms are discussed.
- Planktonic cells
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